MADISON -- Reports let the cat out of the bag on Wednesday, so Bret Bielema confirmed it on Thursday -- fifth-year senior quarterback Curt Phillips will make his first career start Saturday afternoon at Indiana.
Wisconsin's head coach met with the media on Thursday evening for his usual end-of-the-week powwow and after a few opening comments revealed that Phillips had beaten out Danny O'Brien for this weekend's starting job. After O'Brien started the Badgers' first three games and Joel Stave handled the last six, Phillips is now Wisconsin's third starting quarterback of the season. According to Dave Heller of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, this is the first time since 1977 the Badgers will have three quarterbacks make their starting debut for UW.
For Phillips, the journey toward this start was one consisting of three surgeries due to torn ACLs. The Kingsport, Tenn., native was a highly touted recruit out of high school and has always been regarded as mobile dual-threat quarterback. In 2009, Phillips ran for 138 yards on 14 carries (9.9 yards per) while completing 7-of-12 passes for 65 yards and one interception. This year, Phillips has appeared in two games without attempting a pass.
"I think he sees himself just as anybody else trying to get an opportunity," Bielema said. "Anytime you sign with a school and you're a quarterback, your dream is to be a starting quarterback. He, unfortunately, has battled through a lot, but the key point there is he's put himself back on top and I'm really looking forward for him to play."
With Wisconsin having its bye last week, Bielema has spent the previous two weeks playing coy with his starting quarterback after Stave broke his collarbone in the 16-13 loss to Michigan State on Oct. 27. Phillips and O'Brien have split reps with the first-team offense for the past few weeks, and Bielema said the decision to start Phillips came down to his stronger performance beginning last Thursday.
"One of the reasons that I kind of had it planned to have it announced later in the week, just to kind of take the pressure off of him, not have everyone writing all about Curt Phillips," Bielema said.
"[O'Brien has] handled it really well. I give a lot of credit to him, he's a strong kid. Obviously, he's just going to wait for his opportunity. He had his opportunity this past Saturday against Michigan State. Now we're going to give Curt his."
As for Wisconsin's gameplan against Indiana's defense -- which has surrendered the most yards in the Big Ten -- Bielema said there situations where O'Brien could enter the game. More relevant, though, is the makeup of the Badgers' attack with Phillips at the helm. Between media being held out of in-season practices and having limited access during fall camp, Phillips' once-praised mobility is now a significant question mark after his three surgeries.
"It may not be a traditional Wisconsin offense," Bielema said. "You'll see some different things. It's obviously something we're excited to see."
Regardless of Wisconsin's gameplan, Bielema made clear the Badgers have rallied around Phillips as their starter.
"It's kind of a neat deal," Bielema said." I thought one of the neatest things was on Tuesday, we were doing a good-on-good segment of third down. I kind of got a little animated with the offense and wanted some things cleaned up. There was a dropped ball and when that happens, when you're going good-good and our No. 1 offense is going against our No. 1 defense and somebody has a breakdown, usually it's kind of catcalls and the defensive guys will be pimping the offense and yelling, 'Sack!' or whatever.
"All of a sudden, I'm standing right in the middle of it, and all of a sudden everybody on both sides of the ball is yelling for Curt and for the receivers that were in there and for the offense to really ply well. I kind of said that all week; for our players and our coaches, it's a rally week. It's a chance to rally around your starting quarterback. Offense, defense, special teams have all got to be a part of it."
- Both Phillips and defensive end Brendan Kelly have applied for a sixth year of eligibility. Bielema said the NCAA has changed the rule that initially required a player to wait until his eligibility had expired before applying for a sixth year. Bielema said he believed both players would be "textbook cases" for getting another year, "though you never know when you're dealing with the NCAA."
- True freshman Bart Houston began throwing in practice this week. After undergoing surgery to remove a cyst in his throwing shoulder over the summer, Houston still is avoiding contact. But Bielema praised his "good, live arm" after seeing him throw on the side this past week.
- As expected, left tackle Ricky Wagner is full-go after practicing all of this past week. With Wagner back, Ryan Groy will slide back to left guard and Kyle Costigan will line up at right guard.
- WRs Jeff Duckworth (back) and Chase Hammond (foot) are both full-go. Bielema said he was especially excited to see Hammond back in the gameplan.
- Bielema on Saturday's game, which will play a significant role in determining the Leaders Division representative in the Big Ten Championship Game: "I think our kids know what's at stake. We haven't talked a lot about anything other than playing Indiana. We know that if we go over there and win the game, we punch a ticket for Indianapolis. But what our guys have really tried to do is just take it what one day at a time from the time we started fall camp to where we are today."